By Carlos Marín, Peru Country Specialist for Amnesty USA
It’s cause to celebrate: The indigenous peoples of Peru scored a long-overdue human rights victory earlier this month.
On September 6th, 2011, Peruvian President Humala traveled to Bagua, in the Peruvian Amazon region, to sign the Consultation with Indigenous Peoples Law, that requires government to consult with indigenous peoples before companies can begin projects like digging mines, drilling for oil or building dams. Indigenous peoples must also be consulted before Congress can approve any proposed law that could affect their rights.
According to a recent article published by the Lima daily “La República”, Perú has over 1,400 recognized indigenous communities in the Amazonian basin with land rights over 26.4 million acres; in the Andean Highlands as a whole there are approximately 6,068 officially recognized peasant communities occupying over 56.58 million acres.
Though indigenous peoples comprise a significant portion of Peru’s population, historically they have had little voice over what happens on their native lands. A recent Amnesty International report, Sacrificing Rights in the Name of Development: Indigenous Peoples Under Threat in the Americas, shows that abuses against indigenous peoples are widespread.
Bagua, where this new law was signed, was the scene of deadly confrontations between indigenous peoples and the army in June 2009. During the months leading to the bloody events, indigenous peoples of the region protested land use legislation in the Amazonian jungle resulting from the free trade agreement between Perú and the United States. Indigenous communities were not consulted on this legislation, despite Peru’s obligations under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, of which Perú is part.
The challenge facing the Humala government now lies in drafting the rules and establishing procedures to implement the new law. A debate has started in Perú concerning the extent indigenous groups can block large infrastructure or mining projects affecting their territories. 72% of the Peruvian Amazon (490,000 km2) is located in oil blocks that have been leased or will be leased by the Peruvian Government for oil and gas exploration. The only areas fully protected from oil and gas activities are national parks and national and historic sanctuaries, that cover about 12% of the total Peruvian Amazon.
Nevertheless, the Peruvian Consultation Law promises to redress centuries of marginalization in decision-making and grants the indigenous communities the right to influence and perhaps benefit from oil and gas projects. As it advances the key human rights concept of free, prior and informed consent by indigenous peoples, the Law could also serve as a needed and timely legislative model for adoption throughout the region.
We still have a long way to go, but this human rights victory in Peru may help pave the way to human rights victories for indigenous peoples throughout South America.